“My grandfather was a Communist who was sent to the Siberian republic of Buryatia in the 1930s to bring Communism to the people and build collective farms, but he returned to Leningrad a few years later with great respect for the people and culture, and he brought with him an ethnic Buryat wife and a number of thangkas,” says Noskov, sitting in his apartment, a short walk from St. Petersburg’s only datsan, or Buddhist temple.
Once a Russian Orthodox believer, Sergei later took up the thread of his childhood fascination and converted to Buddhism in the 1980s. By 1988 he had moved to Buryatia, where he lived for several years. Sergei came to the United States in 1998 and has since been dividing his time between Russia and the Catskills in New York State, painting the exterior of the Palden Padma Samey Ling datsan located there.
Buddhism has enjoyed a revival in Russia during the past ten years of religious freedom, and believers today account for just under one percent of the country’s population. For centuries most Buddhists have come from among the indigenous peoples of the Russian republics of Buryatia, nearby Tuva, and Kalmykia, situated in southern Russia near the Caspian Sea. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a growing number of ethnic Russians have become acquainted with Buddhism.
Kalmykia is considered to be the only Buddhist republic in Europe. The Kalmyks are an Asian people who migrated to their current homeland in the early eighteenth century. Along with the Buryats and Tuvans, they were converted to Buddhism in the tenth and eleventh centuries by missionaries from Tibet. These three Buddhist peoples were conquered centuries ago as the armies of Russian czars spread eastward, but the local population remained free to practice their faith. Czarist-era Buddhism got a boost in 1909, when Tibetan lama Agwan Lobsan Dorzhiev (1853—1938) obtained permission from the Russian emperor Czar Nicholas II to build a temple in St. Petersburg to meet the faith needs of the growing diaspora of Buryats, Kalmyks, and Tuvans in the empire’s capital. The temple was completed in 1913, and today the St. Petersburg datsan is the oldest in Europe outside of Kalmykia.
Like all other religions, Buddhism suffered greatly when the Communists came to power in October 1917. In the 1920s, when Communist power was still relatively weak, a modicum of religious freedom was possible, but in the 1930s Stalin launched an all-out war against “enemies of the people,” and thousands of monks were among the millions of people killed. In the Siberian republic of Buryatia alone, 46 monasteries and 150 temples were closed and desecrated by the Communists.
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